To Teach is to Learn Twice – Azariah Horowitz

Last fall, I started teaching Hebrew school at a synagogue off campus. Repeatedly throughout the course of that whole first year of teaching, I found myself having to step back and reevaluate key things about my religion.
In December, my kids traipsed into the synagogue building after school dragging slush in on oversized snow boots and bundled up to their noses in fleecy scarves. They hung their hats in the back of our classroom, and we studied the Amidah, one of the central prayers in a standard Jewish service. Beyond teaching them how to read the Hebrew letters in the siddur and when to sit, stand, and bow, I grappled with how to make prayer meaningful for these fifth graders who could barely sound out the words on the page, let alone understand their meaning. How could the Amidah be relevant when it sometimes just sounds like gibberish? How could something be both spiritual and yet so technical at the same time? In planning these lessons, I was forced to take a step back and rethink my own process of praying (I still don’t understand every word of the Hebrew, and the prayers in Aramaic I don’t understand at all, so what’s the point, then?). Beyond just the process, what was the point of praying at all? What was I really trying to accomplish every Friday night and Saturday morning at services?
Another incident: one afternoon in February, I drew a spectrum of the branches of Judaism on the whiteboard, then called for volunteers to fill in the blanks and walk us through what they had written. After a few minutes of passing the expo marker back and forth and hopping up on chairs to reach the top of the board, one kid walked confidently up to the front of the room and announced, “Conservative Jews (our branch) are the best because,” motioning to the Orthodox end of the spectrum, “these guys are crazy and don’t treat women equally, and these guys,” gesturing to the Reform/Reconstructionist side of the spectrum, “are basically not even Jewish anymore. Like they probably don’t even believe in G-d!”
“David, you can’t say things like that!” I instinctively blurted. I found myself immediately backpedaling, trying to correct for this bias I wasn’t even conscious I had. And yet here were my kids, parroting it back to me in a larger-than-life, caricatured form.
Again and again throughout the year, my kids brought up more and more holes and inconsistencies—some small, and others not so small—that I had developed in my view of my religion. With ten year olds, no question is off-limits, and no subject is taboo. Lots of times, I found that the conversations that came up with my fifth graders in Hebrew school were infinitely more honest and probing than any conversation I had with my Jewish peers on campus.
Going into this first year of teaching I thought that my view of religion, my relationship with G-d, and my practice of ritual were all things I was supposed to have figured out already. I was the teacher, I told myself. Instead, my kids taught me that none of these things are static. A big part of being a person of any faith is being ready and open to adjust and tweak your beliefs. As we continue this year in Interfaith, I look forward to seeing what kinds of things will come up now that the questions I am asking and being asked come from people of all kinds of religious and non-religious backgrounds completely different from my own.
Have you ever had an experience where explaining your faith or worldview made you reframe or reevaluate what you actually believe?

7 thoughts on “To Teach is to Learn Twice – Azariah Horowitz”

  1. Hi Azariah, thanks for sharing! I think I have had several experiences regarding explanations of faith that have led me to reevaluate my views. Most of these events have been precipitated by the statements of religious leaders or church staff who were in a position of power. I can remember an event that took place while I was in high school and participating in a Sunday School class specifically. The Youth Leader, a young man in his 20s, made a comment about a scripture passage that was entirely misogynistic and alienating for any young woman in the room. In discussing this incident with others, I think I came to reevaluate my view of Christian teachings about gender.

  2. Hi Azariah,

    I appreciated this post. I feel that our interfaith dialogues on Tuesday nights have suffered from the same stilted hesitance to question other people about their faiths. I have a tendency to be like David in your story, but you are so right – it is much more liberating and educational to state your current beliefs and then deconstruct them in the open so you can see where you were right and where you were wrong. I think that error is stigmatized today too much. We fear being wrong to the point that we remain silent. However, I think there is also a problem where those who do blurt things out like David or myself are then either left unchecked or when we are corrected, there is a temptation to make a blanket rejection of the claim and not approach it with nuance. Enough moralizing though from me. I am on four hours of sleep so I might ramble. In our Interfaith dialogue last Tuesday, or instance, I think the question I wanted to ask was about volunteerism. I wanted to know how Christianity could preach altruism if being altruistic was one way to get to heaven. Meanwhile, from the Jewish perspective, without a clear afterlife defined, altruism was much more real. I think that my question made me a bit concerned for my own understanding of Catholicism. I want to hear answers so that I can be in peace as an altruistic Catholic once again, but I can’t until someone challenges my assumption. That’s all from me. Goodnight.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Azariah! Teaching is an amazing way to learn and I have definitely experienced that in my life. During my two years in Russia as a volunteer, I had the opportunity to teach lessons on various topics multiple times every day. Those lessons varied in length and depth, but they centered around the beliefs and teachings of my church. As I taught and interacted with individuals, my understanding and personal views on the things I was teaching were often impacted by the questions or views of others, and those discussions left a very positive influence in my life.

  4. Hi Zari,

    I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer to your question, but I’m glad you shared that story with us. Kids really do say the darndest things! And sometimes, I agree, it is disconcerting to see the precepts I hold taken a little further or articulated more bluntly than what I consider appropriate (I’m mostly thinking in terms of politics, although that’s a whole other conversation). I hope you’re able to go back to teaching soon, but with the pandemic going the way it is in WI right now it seems like it might be a while. Here’s hoping for a better and safer 2021 than 2020.

  5. Hi, Azariah! I think the phenomenon that you pointed out in your piece is an extremely illuminating one. It really does seem that the best way to most deeply and truly develop a relationship with your faith is to grapple with its flaws, holes, and inconsistencies. Work with your doubts, rather than pushing them away. Acknowledge them and their validity. If, after this, you still return to your faith, your belief will be stronger and more meaningful, because you have given long, critical thought to what you have studied. If there are errors and biases, you’ve found a way to still be faithful while recognizing the harm they can do. If there are inconsistencies, you have grappled with what that means for you and your belief, and come out stronger for it. And, of course, children often are the best ones to point all of these things out, like you said – they have much sharper, inquisitive minds than many adults give them credit for!

  6. Hi Azariah,

    As someone who taught Sunday School for 5 years I can really related to some of the situations you described and indeed children pose interesting questions. I also struggled with the feeling that I had to have everything figured out in order to be a good teacher. Plus, I had quite the fear that one of the parents would come in and tell me that I had it all wrong or that I wasn’t a true Christian. That fear is likely the result of me knowing I wasn’t Christian, by my churches definition, and being afraid they would somehow figure it out. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out because I made a promise to myself that I would never lie about what I believe so all they had to do was ask. Funny how after 5 years of teaching 100 plus children about God, that not a single person asked me if I believed in that God. To be fair people probably assume if you’ve been teaching Sunday School for that long that you believe in what you are teaching, and that is a valid assumption. However, it is interesting how much you miss when you resort to assumptions.

  7. Azariah,

    I also taught at our Punjabi school at our Gurdwara! And like you mention in your post, trying to help our younger people understand the value of our languages without really finding it in ourselves with such concreteness is hard. How do you bridge the worlds in and out of our place of worship? How do we engage in learning and teaching the value of our prayers, the meanings and how can we teach it in a way that can be sustainable?
    Some of my most rewarding experiences with teaching were with our youngest group of kids (4-8 yo) in our ‘history class.’ I realize that we should have had a Sikh Philosophy class that bridged our history class with our ‘Kirtan’ class (where we learned how to sing and read the hymns–which became mostly a music class before actually learning about the hymn’s value). The younger children are so honest and so pure. Their questions are so clear and simple. How have we become so complicated?
    I realized that when I taught other people (who aren’t familiar with Sikhism), I would have had to ‘whitewash’ for people to understand. When this would happen, I feel like I had developed a script in my head and along the way, I lost touch with truly understanding Sikhi. I didn’t remember how thinking about Waheguru made me feel and how the prayers I do make my soul lighter. I can say that I have improved since that time (which was highschool) and I look forward to understanding Sikhi in a way that I can teach it and carry itself on 🙂

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